More than twenty years on, The Matrix remains a sharp, kinetic masterstroke.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
The Matrix arrived at a time of technological uncertainty, just as the millennium was coming to a close and everyone wondered if the clocks would revert to zero and send a burgeoning digital world into chaos. It was about the rise of artificial intelligence and the slavery of the human race. It mirrored the fears and paranoia suffered by an unsure population. It was packaged to look like the coolest video game that had yet to be developed. And for a generation of hungry young moviegoers, it was a formative (and transformative) revelation. At least it was for me.
Unless you were there, in 1999, having witnessed nothing like it before, I doubt I could put The Matrix’s effect into suitable words. It pilfered its premise from other great science-fiction films – notably Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995) and Alex Proyas’ Dark City (1998) – then styled itself not as an acid trip or a neo-noir mystery thriller but as a bible tale drenched in cyberpunk visuals and high-tech kung fu.
It innovated and championed new techniques in filmmaking (slow-motion, “bullet time”, etc), propelled Keanu Reeves into the superstar stratosphere, and seemingly changed the way action movies and science-fiction fantasies could be made.
The story, of course, involves the arrival of a messianic hero called Neo (Reeves), who spends his days as software analyst Thomas Anderson and his nights as a renowned hacker. He is contacted by the enigmatic Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who believes Neo to be mankind’s prophesied saviour after humans created synthetic intelligence and watched helplessly as it surpassed them, enslaved them, and created the Matrix “dream world” to sedate and exploit them.
All this is basically a clothesline on which the directors, the Wachowskis, pin an inexhaustible number of action sequences, many of which have become iconic in the world of movie magic. There are definitely harsh warnings here about the dangers of tampering with computers and A.I., but it all gets swept up in the euphoria of the effects and the style. This isn’t exactly criticism, but a happy observation of a science-fiction action movie that was done better than anything else of its kind at the time.
Watching the movie again for the bazillionth time, I find that the gunfighting scenes no longer grip me the way they used to. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen countless copies and rip-offs in the time since, and even though The Matrix executes them well, they have become much of a muchness. The kung fu scenes, however, especially the dojo and subway pieces, remain muscular and, dare I say it, elegant. The choreography by kung fu legend Yuen Woo Ping has lost none of its sharpness.
I still marvel at the ingenuity and effort put into this film. It shook the world so violently that two sequels spawned in its wake and a third is currently set for 2021. All three are needless. The Matrix ended with triumphant satisfaction. It told its story and closed it. Unfortunately. Hollywood believes that what is closed can be opened again, and again, and again, whether we want it to be or not.
The Matrix is now screening on Netflix Australia
Image courtesy of Roadshow Films & Netflix Australia